Saturday, February 4, 2012

Last Trip Abroad

My trips seem to become odysseys: long, convoluted, crisscrossed voyages—partly planned and partly spontaneous—in which I hope to experience and learn as much as possible wherever I happen to be. I love to explore history, interact with people, gaze enthralled at the surrounding landscape, and generally enjoy the ambience of a place with its unique sights, sounds, and smells. All this is easier to do when traveling alone.
Part of learning and growing, for me, is to write about what I experience, and to photograph whatever grabs my attention. Reviewing words and photos then brings things into focus and consolidates memories. For most folks, a trip is a vacation, a time to relax and stop having to pay attention. For me, a journey is most often an adventure—a time to be alert and to stay tuned in, because the great Unknown—that for which I’m always searching—is fascinating, needs to be attended to, and could get out of control.
Usually there’s an initial impulse or a theme for a trip. While I was still a working scientist, a scientific convention was often the trip’s focal point, and then I might plan a stopover at some city along the way to see a relative or old friend, or I might stay an extra day or two in the convention city to visit museums and other local sites.  Since retirement, though, I've gone to more exotic spots and done fluky things I'd just read about in magazines or heard about on the radio.
My trip abroad, in the summer of 2010, was some of all-of-the-above, a crazy quilt of places I had never yet been during three years of living in Europe, at three different times in my life, or of places I had been previously and wanted to see once again on a “Last Big Trip.” I had never before visited the British Museum, although, with a recent interest in archeology, I have come to realize that many of civilizations finest artifacts are sequestered there. I wanted to see Russia again, after having spent a couple of months in that sprawling country during the summer of 1992, shortly after the collapse of the USSR. And I wanted to explore the south of France, the Midi, because I had slighted that part of my favorite European country (yes, I’ll confess, I’m a Francophile) during the three years I lived on the continent.  I also wanted to see my daughter and her family who, at the time, were living in Berlin.
So, how could I fold all of those bucket-list items into one trans-Atlantic trip before I stopped flying altogether (as I intended after the trip)? First, I made a reservation for a river-cruise tour of western Russia that included Moscow, St. Petersburg, and quaint villages in between. There were trip extensions to Ukraine, Estonia and Finland, which countries I had never visited, so I signed up for those, too. Then I coordinated with my daughter to find the best days for visiting them in Berlin. While doing this planning, I heard on PBS radio (Pipedreams) about an organ tour in the south of France that might fit my itinerary. It seemed like a fascinating and artistically satisfying way to visit Le Midi. I also coordinated, loosely, with a couple of European friends. Then I constructed a tentative itinerary, with scheduled commercial tours “set in stone,” and the times between them more open and flexible. Altogether, the trip lasted a little over two months, but I believe I saw and did almost everything I had hoped, before that last trans-Atlantic flight back to the U.S.
I used to love to fly, but during the past decade or so, that fondness has turned to abhorrence. I intend henceforth never to take a plane anywhere unless someone pays for my first-class ticket (or at least business class). But for this time, since there was no other way, practically, to get to Europe than by plane, I bought the cheapest round-trip flight I could find to London, and a five-country Eurail Pass for getting around Europe once there.
The next several blog entries—mostly derived from trip journals—will chronicle my “Last Trip Abroad” in the summer of 2010

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